VANCOUVER – Jack Layton’s New Democratic Party saw a significant breakthrough Thursday, as a growing wave of popularity pushed the party into second place in a national poll, just ahead of the Liberals.
It’s the first time in 20 years the federal NDP has been ahead of the Liberals in the polls, and comes with just over one week to go before the May 2 election.
But while the poll pointed to a possible historic shift for the NDP, it also found that the front-running Conservatives maintain a comfortable lead that could deliver them a majority government.
The nationwide survey by Ipsos Reid, conducted for Postmedia News and Global TV, showed that if an election were held now, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives would receive 43 per cent of the vote among decided voters, up two points from two weeks ago.
The NDP – who have gained momentum following two strong debate showings by Layton – would receive the support of 24 per cent of voters, up by five points.
Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals, despite trying in this campaign to convince voters that they are the only alternative to Harper’s Tories, have slipped into third place. The poll found that 21 per cent of decided voters would cast their ballot for the Liberals, down by five points.
The news is just as bleak for Gilles Duceppe’s Bloc Quebecois, which has long held a commanding lead in public opinion in Quebec. The Bloc is running in second place in Quebec, at 27 per cent, slightly behind the NDP. Support nationally for the separatist party rests at six per cent, down three points.
The Green party, led by Elizabeth May, has four per cent of national support.
Ipsos Reid president Darrell Bricker said Thursday the results of his April 18-20 poll confirm a significant shift is occurring.
He said the sudden rise in national support for the New Democrats is largely thanks to growth in Quebec and British Columbia.
It’s difficult to predict how much this boost in the popular vote would translate into extra seats for Layton’s party, he said.
While the NDP has political experience in B.C., it has little history of organizational strength in Quebec.
“It does come down to the ground game,” said Bricker. “You have to be able to get those votes into the ballot box.”
“The real story about the NDP surge isn’t about them winning a lot more seats, but how they affect the Liberal votes and the Bloc votes.”
Bricker said it’s possible that in Quebec, as the Liberals and Bloc lose votes to the NDP, the Tories could stand to benefit in tight races.
As well, in the tight races that are expected to occur in B.C., the Liberals are already far behind their opponents and the question for many “soft” Liberal voters will be where they ultimately throw their support.
The Ipsos Reid poll, conducted by telephone, involved 1,000 randomly selected adult Canadians. Results are considered accurate to within 3.1 percentage points 19 times out of 20.
On Thursday, the NDP sought to build on their momentum in B.C., releasing a platform specifically crafted to address issues relevant in the province.
In that document, the party reiterated its promise not to take back a $1.6-billion incentive payment if British Columbians vote in a coming referendum to scrap the harmonized sales tax.
The party also promised to restrict raw log exports and to permanently devote the equivalent of another cent of the gas excise tax to help fund B.C.’s transit infrastructure.
“You will find that New Democrats have a plan to create jobs, improve health care, protect our environment, and make life more affordable for B.C. families,” Layton said in the B.C.-specific platform.
“You can count on me and my B.C. team to fight for you and your family – each and every day.”
But Conservative Heritage Minister James Moore said British Columbians should be paying more attention to what Layton is promising in Quebec, where the NDP has also been making gains.
Two other polls released Thursday also showed the NDP overtaking the Bloc in Quebec.
A CROP poll of 1,000 Quebecers, published in the French language newspaper La Presse, showed the NDP with 36 per cent of support to the Bloc’s 31 per cent.
And an Ekos Research poll put the NDP at 31 per cent in Quebec to the Bloc’s 23.7
Unlike the Ipsos poll, however, Ekos did not show the Conservatives high enough for a majority government. It put the Conservatives at 34.4 per cent, down three points in three days, ahead of the NDP and the Liberals, who are tied at 24.7 per cent.
The Ekos poll, of 2,350 Canadians, is considered accurate within 2.2 percentage points.
On Thursday, Moore said the NDP are making gains in Quebec by “appealing directly to separatist voters.
“They’re appealing straight to separatist voters by saying things that British Columbians should know about like they will not increase the number of seats for British Columbia in the House of Commons,” he said.
“They’ve said they think that all Supreme Court justices have to be perfectly flawlessly bilingual, which would mean that a British Columbia Supreme Court justice like the current chief justice of the Supreme Court Beverley McLachlin couldn’t have been appointed if the NDP had their policy.”
On Thursday, Brad Zubyk, director of communications for the federal Liberals’ campaign in B.C., acknowledged the NDP bump, but said the polls have been sporadic recently and that the Liberals plan to hone their message in the final week.
“The vote is very fluid in B.C., as it is nationally, and I think right now all the parties, with the amount of fluidity in the vote, are trying to figure out what the endgame message is,” he said.
“If you want to hold the Conservatives to a minority that’s one issue, and that’s not the issue we want to fight on,” he added.
“If you want to replace this government, we believe the Liberals are the only ones that can do that, so that’s the ground we’re going to fight on and that’s the message we’re going to take down the stretch.”
In British Columbia, the Ipsos poll found the Conservatives (46 per cent) still have a strong lead over the surging NDP (32 per cent) and the Liberals (12 per cent) are struggling to keep their support levels higher than that of the Green party (nine per cent). However, the poll’s margin of error in B.C. is 8.9 points.
A similar poll released Thursday by Angus Reid Public Opinion had a much smaller margin of error, and showed similar numbers.
That poll found the Conservatives have 42 per cent support in B.C., followed by the NDP with 32 per cent support.
The Liberals were in third in that poll with 18 per cent and the Green party has six per cent.
The numbers for the Conservatives and Liberals are within about two percentage points of what each of the two parties got in B.C. during the 2008 election.
The NDP saw a jump in the poll, however, rising about six points from what it got in B.C. during 2008.
The Angus Reid poll, conducted online among 806 British Columbians April 19-20, has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.
The national Ipsos poll provided significant findings about which leader Canadians trust the most.
Asked to choose which leader is best described as someone they can trust, 40 per cent (up by seven points from two weeks ago) chose Layton.
By comparison, 35 per cent chose Harper (up one point) and just nine per cent believe Ignatieff is best described by this trait (down three points).
Bricker said Ignatieff’s inability to secure the trust of voters is helping drag down his party’s popularity.
Moreover, he said the Liberals, who are running on a left-of-centre platform filled with social program promises, don’t have the trust of the voters they are seeking.
“That’s the irony here. The Liberals decided to go hard on health care and Stephen Harper in their ads. But every time people see an ad like that they’re influenced to vote for the NDP because they’re more credible.”
Bricker said that with just more a week before the end of the campaign, the Liberals have little opportunity to turn things around.
“The problem for the Liberals now is they are fighting a two-front war. And they’re running out of racetrack.”
Still, Bricker noted that while the current spike in NDP support is significant, the party has not done well in the final days of past campaigns.
“In the last three election campaigns, they have not finished strong. They’ve always managed to fritter it away. The question is whether he [Layton] can sustain it.”
In the national Ipsos Reid poll, Canadians were asked: “Thinking of how you feel right now, if a federal election were held tomorrow which of the following parties candidates would you, yourself, be most likely to support?”
Respondents were also asked: “To follow is a character trait that can be used to describe federal political leaders. Please indicate which leader is best described by the trait: someone you can trust.”